In this, my latest instalment of A Glimpse Inside, I had the great pleasure of speaking to playwright Paul Stevens. Some of you might recognise Paul, as the actor Paul Marlon, who was in the fabulous WWI play The Greater Game last year. We met to talk about his new play True Colours, which will be on at the Hope Theatre for a limited run.
Hi Paul, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me, I’d like to start off by asking about your show.
It’s called True Colours. It is running at the Hope Theatre for two nights on 19 and 20 May and it’s a two-hander. It’s very light-hearted. It’s a comedy. It’s a one-act comedy as well, just over an hour. So all done and dusted in one go. It’s definitely a show with a heart. It’s about two very real characters, it’s set on a painter’s job. It’s two painters on a certain job, and that’s where they are and we meet them mainly on their tea breaks. They don’t do a lot of work during the play, they’re mainly on their tea breaks.
They’re best friends, you know. They’re like people we know in life, when you work together so closely and you’re always at work. I don’t know the maths of it, but you know we must spend about 80% of the working week at work. You get to know each other and your whole lives become entwined. And it’s just the story of Ray and Leon, and they’re at a crossroads in their lives, both of them. That crossroads is separate. Leon has some ideas and has reached a point in his life where he is thinking about doing something different, and so has Ray. There is a lot of backstory to it as well. I’m not sure how much I should, or would, go into for you.
Exactly, I don’t want to spoil it. I want you to enjoy it as well on that level. Because of their background, and because of that history, they’ve both reached a point in their lives where they want to change, or they want to make some changes. However, it’s easier said than done. Not only is it easier said than done because it’s difficult to make changes, but they sort of feel that, because their lives are entwined, they can’t make those changes because it will directly affect the other one. And because they are typical working class blokes, who don’t say what they feel, and because of that actually it becomes very complicated. If they sat down and had a normal conversation, and put their cards on the table, if you like, or their hearts on their sleeves, it would be a very simple situation. But it’s not.
That’d be no fun though
Exactly, that wouldn’t be any fun. That’s it I suppose in a nutshell. Without any spoiler alerts.
And what made you want to write this play?
It’s an idea I’ve had for a long time. It’s been in many different guises actually. I originally wrote it as a radio play, and then I started to write it for a screen play, for a sort of a half-an-hour comedy. Like a pilot for a potential series. And then, just because of my love of theatre, and I went to see some fringe stuff, I just thought that’s where this should be, that’s where this idea should be. It should be back as a different idea. I’ve had this idea, in its nucleus, probably since 2006. So quite a long time. But I never really realised what it was, or how it was going to finish. Over the years it has changed a lot. And because it has been written as different things, that has really effected how the plot, and how the characters, have unfolded….
I did some work with a friend of mine Tom, who said there’s a working class season going on at the Tristan Bates, and he said we need some writing, we need some good new writing about working class people, and I thought, well I literally have the show. I thought to myself, without cramming it in, or trying to crowbar the subject matter, I went back to True Colours, which at that point was about 80 or 90% complete and I thought, this is perfect for this. I need to finish this and get it into this working class season. Which was great as it was the impetus to finish it, and it had a direction for once.
I should say that I’m a writer that mainly has ideas in his head, and leaves them there for a long time before I put pen to paper. My writing process is often quite short. I don’t have those long stints where I’m sat staring at a screen because I don’t go near the screen, or go near the keyboard until it’s almost been written in my head. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. There are little scenes and dialogue, even key moments. They’ve already been written before I go anywhere near pushing Act 1, Scene 1. So it was quite easy just to finish it off really.
I suppose that is why I wrote it. I suppose the other thing is, I’ve realised looking back on it, when you finish it, you start to realise there is a lot of your own voice in it. There are definitely my feelings about how men don’t talk to each other… I’m lucky, I’ve got 5 best mates, and we’ve grown up together since we were 5. And there is 5 in the nucleus, but there are people in the periphery, so we’re a really lucky bunch. We’re all different. None of them are in the Arts as it were, some of them are in bands. Some of them are tradesmen, people like that. None of them are actual painters but they’re builders & electricians and those kinds of things. I know that when we talk in the pub, it is those blokes who don’t really say what they mean. You can kind of read between the lines. I suppose I’m the one that always wears his heart on his sleeve a little bit. I suppose being an actor, or dare I say it, being attached to my emotions, and happy to show that, I’m probably the one who yearns to have those conversations. We don’t always do that. And yeah, even when I look back at my upbringing. It was a very working class upbringing, and a dad who was a very normal man of that age, didn’t necessarily sit down and talk emotions. He wasn’t an unaffectionate dad, he would cuddle us and tell us he loved us, I’m sure. But there weren’t lots of long, thought out conversations about how we felt, and certainly not about how he felt about things.
So when I do look back, when I’m asked why did you write this, I can sort of see my own journey and voice in it, about certain elements. And I like to make people laugh. One of the most important things I feel about messages, and about telling people stories, as we know comedy is our defence mechanism, it is also our way in to being able to follow a story, listen to a story, engage with a story, connect to a story. The minute we laugh at something… you can’t laugh if you aren’t concentrating, you know. It was also my chance to, I spend my life thinking about making people laugh, I come from a comedy background. I’ve done stand-up and that kind of thing. This is an opportunity for me to go, will people come and laugh the words I’ve put on a page, or the words that someone is going to say that I put on a page. We took this to a scratch night, which is what we did with the play first, and they did. That was a great moment for me. People were laughing, and there is one particular gag that runs through, and it comes in towards the end again, and people did really laugh, and what that told me is they got that gag because they listened to the first bits. They’ve been listening all the way through this, and that was a lovely feeling.
How does it feel to be performing in something you’ve written?
I’ve acted in film that I’ve written, because I’ve done a lot of short films and even a feature film, that I wrote myself. I’ve always written them with a partner, I’ve got a writing partner Greg, who is the director, who has directed those things. We’ve always written those together. Although both those particular ideas stemmed from a very early stage from an idea or spark that I had. So it felt like my idea, however it becomes a double act.
It feels different this time around because it is a play, and also, I’m trying to produce this. I’m trying to make this, trying to create it. I’m really lucky because I’m working with an actor who, we’re best mates. We met at college before drama school, then went to drama school and we’ve worked over the years together on certain projects and bits and pieces. Although this is, apart from The Greater Game, which was the first time we’d been on stage together in about 12 years, this is the only sort of real piece that is just me and him, and we’ve really been able to use that relationship. That makes it easier, because the writing goes to one side, and when you are just in that rehearsal space, it’s just two actors playing the game. You know, here’s my line, here’s your line, OK I’ll react to that, you react to this. So that is lovely. I suppose it is weird, when we started rehearsal and I’d suddenly go “I don’t know this, I don’t know these words, I don’t know what I’ve written”. That has been a nice learning curve as well, because bringing Jack in, and he has done a lot of fringe theatre, and his input to the script has been really good. Because, as a writer, there is a lot of worries and extra stuff that I didn’t need, and actually then you start to hear it as an actor, and another actor is in the room saying “I get what you’re saying here, you probably don’t need those other 5 sentences because actually I get it with a look or I get it with a nod, or I get it with the one word”. That is kind of nice. That’s interesting and reaffirming, when you don’t have to overwrite and you can cut that back.
It is a nice experience, but I always separate it. I don’t feel like the writer when I’m in the room, I’m not precious about it. Also, because I suppose you form ideas so long ago, and because I feel like, this is a weird analogy, but I feel like it’s a lunch box. You’ve packed it up and put the lid on it. It’s done. That’s it in its nutshell. It’s there. You don’t go back messing around with the sandwich again. It’s there and ready to be eaten by two actors now. Let’s eat that lunch and worry about it later.
There are re-writes. We did a couple of bits yesterday. I have to admit, I can see the temptation, when you are in the rehearsal process, because you start to see, when you do comedy, you start to see extra gags or “that’s a good line” or “that’s a nice reference” but in some respects I’m trying to avoid that, and make what we’ve got on the page work really well, and of course make cuts if we’ve got to make cuts. If it doesn’t work, let’s get rid of it. If we don’t need it, let’s get rid of it. But let’s approach it as two actors, rather than an actor and the writer.
You’ve mentioned that you’ve written for film in the past. So you’ve been writing for a while now. Can you tell me a bit about your writing journey?
That’s a great question and one I’ve never thought about. I’ve always written, and by writing I mean, I’ve always had ideas. Even when I wasn’t in the industry, even when I was a young whipper-snapper and I was always thinking about characters, and always thinking about … little story lines for bits and pieces. I remember a friend of mine from years ago, when we went to the London Planetarium, I was fascinated by the story behind it and everything, and it was in the days where I think computers were still running on Dos… and I remember recording like a narration and we had the parents come around and watch this thing. When I start to look back, I realise there were bits of writing and creating that just happened. I suppose the first writing I did was for stand-up when I was at college, way before I trained as an actor, and I wrote some stand-up and delivered that. Of course, then you start to have to write these ideas down, and there is of course this massive difference when you start to see it on the page.
For my dissertation at drama school I wrote a film, I wrote a short film that was again an idea I’d had for a long that. And that was great because, not only was it the first time in my life that I was ahead of the game, not hiding at the back of the room because I hadn’t got my homework. I came back from the Summer, and I’d shot a film, and I’d written it, and a friend of mine had directed it and made it for me, and I was in that as well. And that was great, that was a wonderful process. And it was wonderful to suddenly see your words, especially on screen, because it is there for good, and of course that is horrible because you see all the holes in it, but equally you can go “we made that” so it was worth that time, sitting at that table writing, because we got to the end of it and it became a product you know.
From there I suppose, when I worked on a film called SSDD with Greg. Same Shit Different Day. It went to the Portobello film festival and won some awards, it actually won best script. I didn’t write on it, however there was a six-minute monologue in there, that my character delivered and it hadn’t been written and Greg said, we’d improvise it, and everything else. I did a lot of research and wrote a lot of ideas down and kind of those ideas became the improvised version and then that almost became that exact monologue. So it kind of come out of my brain. I kind of wrote that and Greg, who was the writer of that film, he iterated around what we’d improvised, and that was great. That felt really good.
And then from there, me and Greg decided to write Bruised. Which is the short film that we shot. And yeah, that was great. I loved that. That was the first thing I properly sat down and wrote a screenplay, and from there we started to write another film, a different idea. And it was an absolute struggle, we kept meeting, and writing, and writing, but we didn’t know where this idea was going. And we were still going around the screenings of Bruised, which was the short film at the time, and I remember we went to Edinburgh with Bruised. Not the Edinburgh festival, it was another film festival that someone put on, and they asked us to come up and do a Q&A and it was great, mixing with brilliant people. We didn’t have any money to stay over, so what we did was we flew up, had a few beers, went to this film festival, and then we said we’d get the first flight back, at around 5 o’clock in the morning. So what we can do in the meantime? Well we can just keep writing; we can write this feature film. But of course you’re absolutely knackered and full of beer, and we completely lost the plot of what we were doing. We flew back and we went back to the studio, and that night we were at another screening, and we’d just lost the plot by this point. So we went for a walk and on the way to this Sainsbury’s to get some food I said, what about this other idea. And I pitched this idea to Greg and within a second he had a title for it. And we went home and we probably wrote, in the next 3 hours, more on that film than we’d written in the 6 weeks of the other film idea. So that film got scrapped and that new idea became Communion which was our feature film, that we wrote together, which we raised £12,500 for, which isn’t a lot of money for a film obviously. The BBC catering budget…
That probably wouldn’t even touch the edges of the BBC catering budget
Yeah, I know. But that was great. So we wrote that together. Although it was quite funny, because a lot of the time, when we’d written Bruised, a lot of the time we’d written “dialogue to be devised”, and we’d write questions and things to throw at the actors. But with Communion we wrote drafts, upon drafts, on top of drafts. That was a real big lump, a real project and a massive learning curve for me. Greg comes from the film industry, Greg studied at film school, so unlike me who’d never been taught how to write film scripts, only from looking at film scripts… as an actor I get sent scripts all the time, so you learn from looking & reading. But I’d never properly written a film script until we got together. Whereas now I’ve got… I’m full to the brim with half ideas, finished ideas, 15 drafts down the road of other things. That just leads on to what I said, for example, about this idea that’s been a radio play, and it’s been other guises. I did this whole stint of 6 months, of trying to get a pilot into a company that I’ve worked with quite a lot, who are quite well connected with the BBC and Channel 4, and are looking for new pilots, and I probably wrote a new pilot a week. You know, a half-an-hour script of new ideas, and I’d send it off, and send it off, and they’d always give me good feedback, but it never got anywhere. But actually I look at it as a really good… it’s like my brain was in the writer’s gym for 6 weeks. It got in really good shape. My writer’s brain had a 6-pack by the end of that. Whether the ideas were any good or not, it kind of didn’t matter, because it was really good to kind of sit down and really work at it.
I agree. Sometimes there is so much pressure in writing something that has to go somewhere. Sometimes the act of writing is about making you a better writer, and it might be the next thing that actually goes somewhere.
That is true. That is a really good point.
That is what I tell myself
Yeah, I think I keep telling myself that. I remember two things that have always stuck with me for writing. And they’re really simple things and I’m sure all the brilliant writers, and all the aspiring writers out there already know this stuff. So this isn’t me trying to teach anybody anything, not at all. But I remember reading something about never bringing your editor to the first draft. Just go for it. That was a revelation for me. Because I’d always written then for independent film, my brain was always telling me “how I can make this? How I can I get a crew and make this, and shoot this?” So I’d never write, “Jim stands at the edge of the Grand Canyon looking out…” because I’m never going to shoot that. So I’d write “Jim stands in his kitchen” because I’m thinking I’m going to use my auntie’s kitchen. Do you know what I mean? I was always writing things that I can make. And I think I did the same with True Colours. I think I wrote a play knowing that I can put this on. It’s two guys, it’s two chairs, it’s a little bit of set, it’s a little bit of props…
Lots of tea from the sounds of things
And lots of tea, exactly. Lots of tea breaks. And that is what it should be about.
And the other thing (writing tip) was about, because … I used to beat myself up for letting ideas go. And also, sometimes, starting ideas I should have let go. I remember reading something that said “some ideas should go, and some ideas will hang around because they are going to be good ideas” and actually, like you just said about different genres and different formats (off interview chat about how I use short stories as a way to experiment), you start off thinking this is going to be a radio play, and then you really … actually, it is more like this. And the reason I know where True Colours came from in terms of year is that it was the last year of me being at drama school, and originally I said to this guy, there was this one guy, Charlie Morris, who is a writer actually, he’s had a book or two published. He did a thing or two with us about devising when we were at drama school. I pitched the idea to him, I’ve got this idea for my dissertation about a short film about these two guys on a building site. It was a building site back then. And he said, sounds good, he said, sounds like a play to me, rather than a short film. And he was totally right. And at that point I hadn’t got my mind into the right place for understanding that for some ideas, you have to think about “what is this?” Is this a play, is this for radio, is this a short film, is this a feature? Because otherwise you’re forcing an idea to become something it shouldn’t be, aren’t you?
Although saying that, there is a similarity between doing a play that is going to be on in a small intimate venue, and doing a radio play which is going to be in the intimacy of someone’s home. They’re not actually that different in terms of how you’re embracing the audience’s lives. Some things just exist in multiple forms
I suppose what is interesting about that, it makes me think about the subject matter of True Colours again, about the fact these two men can’t be intimate in the sense of, not intimate with each other, but they can’t talk about their most inner thoughts. Or they can’t talk necessarily about what they really are feeling. And again, you know, when you talk about the venue and you talk about it being a radio play, well actually the audience are the ones that become privy to that and they come in. The Hope theatre, I’ve been to a couple of times, and one of the shows that I saw there, one of the reasons I really picked this again and decided I’ve got to push on with this, that this is going to be a good play. I saw this show, it was … I’d forgotten… I’d seen too much big stuff and I’d forgotten that we can talk to the audience. And it was a little moment of that, of course, that is what True Colours needs. It needs moments where, because these two guys can’t talk to each other, they should be able to talk to us. And us, meaning the audience.
Yeah, maybe. Apart from the awful disguises, is that the archbishop? No, he’s got a moustache on and a hat…
Well if it works for Clark Kent
Yeah, glasses, it’s all you need.
And it’s interesting. Again, it is these things that you don’t think about when you are doing it. It is when you reflect, and you start to think, oh yeah, that makes sense, that fits with what the show is, or how the show is going to be put on. There is something in intimacy. But that was a great moment, to remember, and to think about Shakespeare
I did bring up Shakespeare, he was very good at comedies
Yeah, he was a pretty good writer that guy
He has his moments
But yeah, I just remember thinking that a little show like that, has intimate moments, can really make it, and you feel really privileged as an audience member. You go “I want to talk to this person”. And that was one of the most important things for me about True Colours. It’s that these characters, not only will you get those opportunities where they do open out and talk to the audience. I think there’ll be… I’d be very surprised if anyone coming to see True Colours won’t know someone like these two guys. And even though it is two men, I don’t think that matters either. There’ll be lots of women who know men like this, or live with men like this, or even know women who are like this. I mean, even though it is two men on a painter’s working day, there is something in there for me. There are lots of references to them, and their backgrounds, and both of them are heavily influenced by female roles, by the females in their lives. Again, without any spoilers…
What are you hoping audiences will get from seeing True Colours?
I’m in no way thinking that there’s some underlining super message in there. However, I would love for people to come away, and to not only have had a really good time, and had a really good laugh, and really fallen in love with these characters. But there are moments, definitely, where I think the audience will reach out to these characters, because these characters are going to reach out to the audience. And if it makes anybody go home and say what they should have said, or maybe take time to listen to someone a little bit more. Because we all get a little bit too wrapped up in our lives. Especially when you know someone so well, they might not tell you, but they are trying to tell you, if you’d just take a step back and listen, you might be able to help someone out a little bit more. I certainly don’t feel in any way that this is about mental health, those kind of subjects, however I do certainly feel that these characters, if left longer in this situation without an outlet, or someone to listen, or someone to talk to, you could end up going down that line. And, I feel, as somebody who needs to tell people how I feel, who needs someone to tell me they love me if you like, if you don’t have that outlet, I think that is a very hard existence. A very hard existence. So maybe people will recognise themselves, or elements of their own lives, but it would be nice for them to come and see a little bit of something that they recognise, and for it to make them smile and for them to think that little bit more about it.
Thank you so much Paul!
If you are interested in seeing True Colours, you don’t have time to mess around and can find out more through here: http://www.thehopetheatre.com/productions/true-colours/
For anyone wanting to chat about the show over a cheeky beverage afterwards, I’ll be seeing it on the 20th May, and am always interested to chat with fellow audience members about their experience of the show.